When Brigid Schulte, a journalist and mother of two, learned she had 30 hours of leisure time every week, she was shocked.
Between racing to school activities, rushing to meet deadlines and wrangling a never-ending to-do list, it never seemed her free time amounted to so many hours. Schulte felt powerless over her schedule.
The revelation about her spare time, courtesy of a time-use expert, inspired Schulte to find out why she felt so overloaded. She wrote about her wide-ranging research in the bestselling book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, and discovered several essential strategies for cultivating fulfillment and happiness as a parent.
Chief among them, she says, is realizing that you can't manage time, but you can change expectations and priorities to reflect your own personal needs rather than society's standards for the perfect parent or employee.
"One of the most important things I learned is the biggest journey is right in your head,"
"One of the most important things I learned is the biggest journey is right in your head," says Schulte, who directs the Better Life Lab at the New America Foundation.
Finding a realistic balance amidst the chaos is also important to Jason Marsh, a dad and editor-in-chief and director of programs at the Greater Good Science Center, a U.C. Berkeley center that explores "the science of a meaningful life." Marsh is constantly thinking about evidence-based tips for parents who crave a more fulfilling connection to themselves, their work and their families.
He often recommends looking for ways to practice and express gratitude more in our everyday lives. That might sound hokey to a harried parent who just wants to shower, but research shows it can make a big difference.
Simply writing down three to five things for which you feel grateful a couple of times per week can elevate your mood and perhaps even improve your health, according to research.
While those suggestions are excellent places to start, Schulte and Marsh had several more strategies to offer. You might be surprised by how much they involve doing something for yourself instead of focusing exclusively on your child.
Most people experiencing stress tend to hold their breath, but parents may be especially prone to this habit as they, for example, try to calm a screaming toddler or hunt down missing homework.
Both Schulte and Marsh recommend taking even a few moments every day to breathe deeply and fully. Studies show that restoring breath can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. "[Breathing] creates space for you to think clearly," says Schulte. Every parent could use more of that.
2. Change your expectations.
With clarity comes the ability to think openly about what you want. Schulte says transforming the experience of parenthood requires a willingness to abandon other people's ideas of what it means to be committed to both work and family.
Companies increasingly expect employees to be available at all hours or on short notice and parents feel growing pressure to be ever-present for their children.
"Stop drinking the Kool-Aid, take a step back and begin to ask yourself some questions,"
"Stop drinking the Kool-Aid, take a step back and begin to ask yourself some questions,"says Schulte. "Why am I doing this? What’s important to me?"
Once those priorities are clear, you can make better decisions about how to spend your time.
3. Make time for yourself.
Parents spend significantly more time with their children today than they did in the past, but still feel guilty taking a moment or more for themselves. These breaks, however, can rejuvenate an overwhelmed mom or dad, which should lead to a better parenting experience for everyone.
Schulte recommends that partners become "sponsors" for each other, allowing the other to schedule time away for activities like a yoga class or bike ride in advance. Even if that kind of distance isn't feasible, particularly for single parents, just taking 15 minutes to meditate or sit quietly (no laundry folding or social media allowed) can provide a much-needed reprieve.
4. Spend time with your partner.
Time-use surveys show that partners are often the last priority when a child arrives, but Schulte says it's a disservice to the entire family when that key relationship suffers. If possible, schedule a regular date night or declare one evening free of devices and work. Instead of filling every conversation with observations about your child, find new subjects that engage you both.
5. Don't panic about your kid's future.
Education is important, but too many parents today are panicked by the thought of their kid not being competitive enough to attend an Ivy League school. The research on long-term fulfillment, though, shows that it doesn't matter which college people attend. Their selection may account for income and prestige, but has very little effect on fulfillment.
What matters more is whether college students had a trusted adult in their lives and were engaged in meaningful activities, among other factors. So parents should relax and stop positioning themselves to constantly rescue their children from failure. "When you scaffold too closely," Schulte says, "you’re not allowing the kids to discover who they are on their own."
6. Make time for "open space."
We may complain about our schedules, but in many ways we're addicted to the high of collecting experiences. If your afternoons and weekends are regularly booked with activities that ultimately leave you exhausted, try considering "open space." This means reserving blocks of time for creative play, exploration and reflection — for both you and your child.
"If that’s the only thing you did in the coming year, that’s a win," says Schulte.
7. Put the phone down.
Your phone may feel like a lifeline to information and conversation, but it can also keep you from engaging with your child and yourself. "If your face is always in your phone, that’s what [your children] are going to see as normal," says Schulte. Try silencing notifications and texts or put the phone in a drawer for a set amount of time every day.
8. Build a support network.
The adage about it taking a village to raise a child is true. But that community is as important for the parent as it is the child. Parenting can be an isolating experience, so work on making connections with like-minded folks who can support you in the journey.
"You don’t want it to be competition," says Schulte. "If it turns into that, then pull out, because it’s not what you need."
9. Practice self-compassion.
There's so much to worry about — how your child sleeps, eats, plays and poops. Guilt, says Schulte, can be particularly pervasive for women who hear plenty about their worth as mothers and still encounter stigma when they work.
Parenting, though, is a lifelong journey and you can't be everything to your child.
Parenting, though, is a lifelong journey and you can't be everything to your child. Research on "self-compassion" suggests that parents may benefit when they focus not on their guilt or lack of control, but on how their difficult experiences are quite common and actually link them to other parents.
10. Express gratitude.
Feeling and expressing gratitude is a practice, and it doesn't mean ignoring upsetting or frustrating circumstances, like a child having trouble at school or a relentlessly demanding workday. Forcing yourself to be positive, in fact, can be a recipe for unhappiness, according to research.
What you want is simply to make a habit of observing moments of joy as well as good things, events and people in your life that you might take for granted. Marsh says the "three good things practice," which involves writing down those observations, is a way to focus on the positive aspects of your life.
For more information on how to practice some of these strategies, visit Greater Good in Action, an online resource created by the Greater Good Science Center.